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image: General Electric

In Thursday’s New York Times, I write about General Electric’s bid to to become a major player in the U.S. solar industry:

SAN FRANCISCO — In a move that could shake up the American solar industry, General Electric plans to announce on Thursday that it will build the nation’s largest photovoltaic panel factory, with the goal of becoming a major player in the market.

“For the past five years, we’ve been investing extremely heavily in solar,” said Victor Abate, vice president for G.E.’s renewable energy business. “Going to scale is the next move.”

The plant, whose location has not been determined, will employ 400 workers and create 600 related jobs, according to G.E. The factory would annually produce solar panels that would generate 400 megawatts of energy, the company said, and would begin manufacturing thin-film photovoltaic panels made of a material called cadmium telluride in 2013. While less efficient than conventional solar panels, thin-film photovoltaics can be produced at a lower cost and have proven attractive to developers and utilities building large-scale power plants.

G.E. has signed agreements to supply solar panels to generate 100 megawatts of electric power to customers, including a deal for panels generating 60 megawatts with NextEra Energy Resources.

G.E., a manufacturing giant, operates in a range of energy businesses, from nuclear power plants to natural gas turbines. It has been aggressively expanding its energy portfolio, particularly through acquisitions.

Mr. Abate said G.E. had completed its purchase of PrimeStar Solar, the Arvada, Colo., company that made the thin-film photovoltaic panels. G.E. said the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory recently certified that a PrimeStar solar panels manufactured at its factory in Colorado had set a 12.8 percent efficiency record for cadmium telluride technology. Conventional solar panels typically are 16 to 20 percent efficient at converting sunlight into electricity.

“We believe we’ll be a cost leader, a technology leader and we’re excited about our position in a 75-gigawatt solar market over next five years,” said Mr. Abate.

The global conglomerate’s entry into the highly competitive photovoltaic market is likely to prove a significant challenge to First Solar, the thin-film market leader and the dominant manufacturer of cadmium telluride panels.

Also at risk are start-ups like Abound Solar, a Colorado company that in December obtained a $400 million federal loan guarantee to build factories to manufacture cadmium telluride panels.

G.E.’s initial panel manufacturing capacity will be a fraction of the more than 2,300 megawatts of capacity that First Solar, based in Tempe, Ariz., plans to have online by the end of 2011.

But Mr. Abate said that G.E.’s solar effort would parallel the rise of its wind energy business.

“It’s a $6 billion platform and it was a couple of hundred million dollars in ’02,” he said of the company’s wind division. “When you look at G.E., we’re very good at scale. In ’05, we were building 10 turbines a week. By ’08, we were doing 13 a day.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

With the first mass-produced electric cars set to hit American streets next month, there’s been a lot of to-ing and fro-ing in the media about whether consumers will actually buy the vehicles once they’re in showrooms.

But as General Electric made clear this week, some big corporations are certainly in the market for battery-powered rides, and that alone could help spur the market.

GE announced that it would buy 25,000 electric cars between now and 2015, including 12,000 Chevrolet Volts. (Which will help General Motors pay back that taxpayer-financed bailout.)

Now, 25,000 cars might not sound like all that much. But it’s the largest corporate buy of electric vehicles to date. And if GE’s move inspires other multinationals to follow suit and electrify their fleets, the numbers could really start to add up. Just imagine if the Fortune 500 made a similar commitment — 12.5 million electric cars would be on the road in a few years.

(GE chief executive Jeff Immelt just needs to start bragging about how big his electric fleet is at cocktail parties; before you know it, the CEO next door will be putting in an even larger order for EVs.)

As Immelt has made clear on more than one occasion, this is all about business.

“We basically touch every part of the infrastructure,” he said in a video press release. “From the smart grid, to our WattStation, to electrical distribution products, to everywhere in between.

“We’ve always believed clean energy is about commercialization. It’s not a novelty,” Immelt continued. “Broad-based commitments and broad-based strategies are what’s going to make clean energy a reality.”

GE unveiled the WattStation, its electric charging station for the street and garage, this past summer, and in September inked a deal with Better Place to deploy the iPodish charger in the Silicon Valley startup’s electric infrastructure network.

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photo: GE

In my Green State column on Grist on Thursday, I write about General Electric’s $200 million contest to find ideas and technologies to accelerate deployment of the smart grid:

Got a killer smart grid idea? General Electric has $200 million to spend.

Jeff Immelt, chief executive of the industrial conglomerate, flew into San Francisco to announce on Tuesday that GE was hooking up with prominent venture capital firms from Silicon Valley, the East Coast, and Europe to offer a supersized version of the X Prize for innovation. (GE and the participating venture capitalists are each contributing $100 million to the challenge.)

“We really believe this digital energy space is going to move fast and big as an economic proposition,” Immelt said before a hundred or so of Silicon Valley’s green tech elite who gathered for a lavish press event at the neo-classical Bently Reserve building in downtown San Francisco. “It also lays the groundwork for everything that needs to be done in an energy future, from nuclear to renewables.”

“GE can offer 50 to 60 percent of the solutions,” he added. “But the only way we can grow is by partnering with the venture community.”

And you too, Grist reader. GE will essentially crowdsource ideas, business plans, and potential startup acquisitions at a new site called Ecomagination Challenge: Powering the Grid. (“Ecomagination” is how GE brands its various environmental and green technology ventures and initiatives.)

Between now and September 30 you can submit ideas and vote on the best ones — the one scoring the most reader votes, and GE’s approval, wins $50,000. The company and its venture partners will award five other entries $100,000 each, which could lead to further equity investment.

A day into the smart grid challenge, ideas submitted from around the world range from wind farms on the Great Lakes to a proposal to “harness the energy from the Earth’s rotation.”

Now it’s doubtful that any startup entrepreneur worth her seed funding will risk floating  a potential multimillion-dollar idea for all to see. But GE’s partnership with venture capital firms such as Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Rockport Capital Partners — not to mention its use of social media to troll for innovative ideas — speaks to the challenges of building a smart grid.

First we need to define what a smart grid is. Comparing it to the Internet is a favored analogy. The current power transmission system is patchwork of early-to-mid 20th century technology that sends electricity from power plants to homes, offices, and factories. It’s essentially a one-way, analog system.

What Immelt calls “digital energy” will transform the power grid into a two-way, interactive system through the use of software, sensors, and other devices that allow utilities and grid operators to control and monitor energy use from the household level up, as well as get real-time data on electricity demand and supply. The various parts of the grid — transformers, substations, power lines — will communicate digitally, alerting operators, for instance, when a component has failed.

The ability to collect and analyze such grid data is crucial for the mass expansion of renewable energy. Most forms of green energy — solar and wind, for instance — are intermittent and increasingly decentralized; there are more than 31,000 rooftop solar installations in California alone.

To maximize renewable energy production and minimize greenhouse gas emissions, utilities and grid operators must be able to balance electricity being fed into the grid from tens of thousands of such sources along with energy from centralized fossil fuel power stations.

And in the coming years, utilities will need to know the location and charging status of tens of thousands of electric cars, each one automobile battery both a consumer and a potential provider of electricity. (If 100,000 cars plug in at 9 p.m. in California just as wind farms hit peak production, a utility will want to use that emission-free electricity to charge up emission-free vehicles rather than rely on, say, natural gas-fired power plants.)

You can read the rest of the column here.

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For some on the right coast, the current renewable energy craze seems like a rerun of that ’70s show, the province of California dreamers and pie-in-the-sky Silicon Valley techies. But increasingly it’s all about Big Business, a point driven home Thursday by a deal struck by two decidedly non-crunchy granola types: billionaire oilman T. Boone Pickens and General Electric chief Jeffrey Immelt.

Pickens’ Mesa Power placed an order for 667 GE (GE) wind turbines for the first phase of a massive 4,000-megawatt, 400,000-acre West Texas wind farm called the Pampa Wind Project. When completed in 2014, Pampa is expected to produce enough clean green energy to light up 1.3 million homes, according to Mesa. Each of those 667 turbines alone can generate 1.5 megawatts of electricity. The first phase of the project will cost $2 billion, with a good chunk of the cash going to GE.

That a legendary wildcatter like Pickens sees big money to be made from renewable energy in an oil state like Texas is just another sign that green is not a fad but the future. “You find an oilfield, it peaks and starts declining, and you’ve got to find another one to replace it,” Pickens said in a statement. “It can drive you crazy. With wind, there’s no decline curve.” (Just how much money Pickens will make off wind will depend on whether Congress extends a production tax credit that makes such projects viable.)

When it comes to energy, Texas is literally its own country, as the Lone Star State is not plugged into the national power grid and must generate nearly all its electricity within its borders. Aggressive efforts by Texas regulators and entrepreneurs to make the state energy independent by upgrading its transmission system and tapping wind power are models for the rest of the country.

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